The Insanity of the Iditarod

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Every winter since March of 1973, sled dogs have been forced to train and suffer for the “last great race” of our time- The Iditarod. Animal advocates all over the world cringe when they hear the term. What many everyday citizens don’t see is the intense cruelty that goes on behind the scenes. The breeding, the abuse, the intense training, the abandonment…. This race is a combination of multiple sources of abuse that we fight everyday. After you read this, I implore you to share the article with everyone that you know. Help me to end the “glamour” behind the Iditarod.

The Background

“Jagged mountain ranges, frozen river, dense forest, desolate tundra and miles of windswept coast . . . temperatures far below zero, winds that can cause a complete loss of visibility, the hazards of overflow, long hours of darkness and treacherous climbs and side hills . . .”

Is this a description of the Iditarod from a critic’s  point of view? No… it’s from the official Iditarod website.

The Iditarod is the longest dog sled race in the world. It starts on the first Saturday in March every year in Anchorage, Alaska and ends about 1,200 miles away in Nome. The 2013 date is set for Saturday, March 2nd. The Iditarod  is considered one of sports’ most grueling events, as mushers and their dog teams battle the Alaskan wilderness for 8-17 days. The race honors Alaska’s brave past, which centered around dog sledding, particularly the “Great Run of Mercy” in 1925, when sled dog teams brought serum to Nome to prevent a diphtheria epidemic. If you have seen the children’s movie “Balto”, you get the idea. 

The Breeding and high confinement

According to Joe Runyan, author of  Winning Strategies for Distance Mushers, 

“The goal is to produce 70 or more quality pups a year… Now, for the rest of the readers, the real answer to the question ‘Are you running a puppy mill?’ is essentially ‘yes.’ Let’s face it you made the decision to raise 70 pups and pick out the 15 or 20 best ones. That means there are 50 pups left to see, give away, or put down. You can’t keep the average dogs because it will ruin your focus on developing a championship team and besides that, unless you are independently wealthy, you cannot afford it.”

Many of you are familiar with puppy mills, this is no different. These sled dogs aren’t given the opportunity to run free, even in a fenced in area. Many of them are forced to eat and drink from rusty bowls that are fixed to their kennel, as you can imagine, they are rarely cleaned or disinfected. All dogs, no matter age or health are kept outside during the cold Alaska winters (temp ranging from -24 to 15). In true puppy mill style, there aren’t many employees at these kennels and the dogs are highly neglected. 

Ashley Keith, former musher and Iditarod kennel employee who now rescues and rehabilitates abused sled dogs wrote the following letter to the Sled Dog Action Coalition in 2007. 

“When I traveled to work for a champion Iditarod and touring kennel in Alaska, I found that over two hundred dogs lived in dilapidated wooden dog houses and plastic barrels, without straw. Even though the temperatures were below zero at night, the few elderly dogs that were present received no bedding or extra care. They slowly crawled out of their dog houses each morning, arthritic and constantly growing thinner from the cold. Poorly constructed and maintained houses are bad because they provide little to no warmth for the dog. Temperatures are bad enough in Alaska, but wind chill factors make it even worse.” 

Rick Swenson, the four-time Iditarod champ boasts in his book, The Secrets of Long Distance Training and Racing,

“But on the average, a fellow like myself, who raises a minimum of 50 pups every year, using almost all proven breeding stock, still doesn’t get more than two pups out of a litter that wind up making the race team when they are three years old.”
“If a pup is slow, I am not going to mess with them. It is not worth messing with a pup if it hasn’t got any speed and doesn’t want to go- yes, I am talking about draggers. That is the first culling – they just plain don’t want to go. Then I look at their gaits or if they throw their legs out funny or obviously are too slow, if their lines are slack all the time. There is no sense wasting good dog food and your time on a dog that isn’t fast enough to keep up.” “If you want to have trotters, you can save yourself a lot of dog food, keeping the faster ones and eliminating the others.”

You can only imagine what happens to the other 48 pups, and, no, they don’t go to rescue. George Attla, the author of Everything I Know About Training and Racing Sled Dogs talks about how he deals with dogs that aren’t up to standard. Constantly referring to “getting rid of them right now” or sending them to “Happy hunting grounds” which is a term used to mean “North American Indian Heaven”, Attla talks about the reasons for discarding dogs. Looking back, running funny, running slowly, dogs that are scared to run down hill, younger dogs that goof off… His reasons are endless and his method of removal is a bullet. 

Sled dog lot for Iditarod 2010
jkbrooks85/cc by2.0

The Training

Dogs will do anything to please their humans and, in this race, the dogs literally run themselves into the ground- leaving everything they have on the snow for their human.  These mushers crack the whip and force them to run in the cold for days. Honestly, no dog has a genetic need to run that distance under those conditions- no  matter what the sport officials will tell you. 

The Iditarod and the State of Alaska do not require kennel owners and mushers to keep record of dogs that die in training each year. And it is probably to protect the “sanctity” of the sport, because if word got out about the training practices, the race would be over before it started- so to speak. What is the trick to getting a sled dog team to obey your every command? Abuse. Not just a swat on the butt or nose… Severe abuse. Cruel methods of abuse are used to make the dogs obedient. I will not be going too in depth in this article (you can read more of the “training” methods here), but it is intense. One of the dog handlers, Mike Cranford, spoke out in a letter to the Sled Dog Action Coalition. 

“The abuse occurs during training and out of the public’s eyes. I’ve seen the dogs choked, smothered and beaten with everything from clubs to steel snowhooks. One musher showed me his club made out of chain and how well it worked and he was proud of it.” 

Sadly, that is not the worst of it… The hardest part is that these trainers are behind the scenes. Their abuse goes undocumented and no one speaks out for these poor poor souls. 

The Race

The maximum number of dogs that a musher can start off with is 16, and they are only required to finish with five. Again, the dogs suffer from severe abuse during the race itself. 1200 miles through some of the coldest spots in the world, these dogs are expected to race at their highest potential at all times. If they are sick, slow, injured, tired- they are beaten. If the injury is too much, the dog is cut loose and the dogs are re-positioned  The icy and cold ground is another danger for these animals, it is almost like sandpaper to them. “Candling” the dogs feet is a popular exercise, in which the musher cuts the fur around the paws and then proceeds to singe the hair with a propane torch. This makes it harder to the snow to pile up on their paws. 

Another danger that isn’t often mentioned, the mushers are so sleep deprived that they hallucinate. This is even more dangerous for the dogs, who are expected to listen to every command. When the commands become confusing, the dogs act out of sorts and are, again, beaten.

149 dogs have been reported to have died during the race since 1994 (before that records weren’t kept), 20 of them have died since 2005. The dangers of this race are endless- wild animals, hypothermia, asphyxiation due to the harness, drowning. The race is labeled as “man against nature”, yet the real work is done by the dogs themselves. In my opinion, the Iditarod is no worse than dog fighting. 

Dogs who couldn’t make it across Iditarod finish line:

Year Number of dogs starting race Number of dogs finishing race Number of dogs notfinishing race Percentage of dogsnot finishing race
2002 1,024 524 500 49%
2003 1,024 381 643 63%
2004 1,391 734 657 47%
2005 1,264 585 679 54%
2006 1,328 737 591 45%
2007 1,308 564 744 57%
2008 1,517 807 710 47%
2009 1,072 575 497 46%
2010 1,136 550 586 52%
2011 992 451 541 45%
2012 1056 555 501 47%

Average percentage of dogs not finishing race from 2002 to 2012: 50%
We are rarely told what happened to these dogs. from

The Prize

 Why do people participate in this race? Greed and money of course. The first person to cross the finish line gets $50,400, and the top-30 finishers split the $528,000 prize. All of this cruelty for a little money, a little fame, and the chance to do it all again the next year. Where does all of this money come from, you ask? The sponsors, of which there are many. Two of the biggest ones are Wells Fargo and Exxon Mobile. For a full list, click here. If there were no sponsors, this cruelty would be over. 

Cruel, yes. Illegal? No.

The Iditarod violates the accepted standards of animal cruelty in 38 states and D.C, however Alaska doesn’t view cruelty in the same aspect. These states have animal cruelty laws that talk about “overdriving” and “overworking” an animal. With 149 dog deaths reported since 1994, the Iditarod is obviously an act of cruelty. 2009 was the first Iditarod in which a dog did not die… Below is an example of the California law. 

“597. Cruelty to animals. (B) Every person who overdrives, overloads, drives when overloaded, overworks… any animal… is, for every such offense, guilty of a crime punishable as a misdemeanor or as a felony or alternatively punishable as a misdemeanor or a felony and by a fine of not more than twenty thousand dollars ($20,000).”–Animal Welfare Institute, Animals and Their Legal Rights

If these races (and deaths) occurred in any other part of America, they would be illegal. So why does Alaska allow it? 

The Sad Truth

Retired or culled (rejected) sled dogs are very hard to adopt out. Not only is there not a “demand” in Alaska for the Siberian husky breed as a pet, but these animals are so extremely neglected and abused that they often have severe issues and require patience. Not to mention that with the vast numbers of dogs that are surrendered, adopting them all out is a pipe dream. Most dogs never even stand a chance, they are euthanized right away. 

“But the facts are that each year, more than 1,000 sled dogs wind up at the shelter and of those, only about a third are adopted.”- Associated Press, Anchorage Daily News, May 7, 2007

How can you help?

If this information has upset you and you would like to voice your concerns, please feel free to email the Executive Director of the Iditarod race, Stan Hooley at or you can head on over to the facebook page of the Iditarod and voice your concerns there!  Please see the sponsors list again and send emails to them! Let them know that we won’t stand for this abuse any longer.

And here are a few links to petitions that are focused on the sponsors of the Iditarod! Lend your signature and, who knows, maybe the sponsors will listen!!—the-worst-case-of-animal-cruelty-in-the-us/

Please like Bailing Out Benji on facebook

Stay up to date on how you can help these dogs and more!

UPDATE:: The 2013 Iditarod Champion was recently crowned… Meet Mitch Seavey, one of the most notorious animal abusers to come out of the race. Meet your 2013 Iditarod Champion (pictured below is his sled dog lot, where his dogs are kept.) Mitch Seavey, owner of 200+ sled dogs on his property.

Here is a quote from his book about training for the Iditarod.

Mitch Seavey on “Discipline and Negative Training”
– from Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way

“Fluffy, quit-your-screwing-around-you-miserable-excuse-of-a-fur-covered-garbage-disposal-before-I-whack-your-worthless-hiney-so-hard-you-will-need-two-stamps-to-send-back-a-postcard…”

“When he doesn’t respond, stop, go up to the dog…and with a pre-selected willow stick about 1/2 inch in diameter and three feet long, give him a good whack on the butt…You have to whack him good too…If you are going to bother with this, it’s got to sting.”


***Editor’s Note: This article was one of the hardest that I had to research. The severe abuse that these dogs are forced to endure is unfathomable. Please share this article with all that you know. However, we do recognize that there are some racers that are in it for the love of the dogs and for the sport. It is the ones that use the animals to make a profit- those are the ones that need to be exposed.  

Two dogs from the 2012 Iditarod wake after a storm.